Dopamine’s Impact on Lifestyle: Insights from Huberman

Dopamine influences our mood, movement, and motivation.

Huberman emphasizes the importance of balancing dopamine to avoid burnout, suggesting practices like dopamine fasts that can help improve emotional health.

Your Dopamine History Really Matters

Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder known for causing tremors and difficulty with smooth movements, often presents challenges in speech and cognition. 

This condition typically affects older populations, but there are troubling instances, like the case of Michael J. Fox, where it strikes early. 

The disease is generally associated with genetic factors, but lifestyle choices may also influence its development. 

One stark example of lifestyle impact is the story recounted by neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, which involves young opioid addicts and a disastrous encounter with illicit drug synthesis.

In a disturbing event that sheds light on the potential environmental causes of parkinsonian symptoms, a group of individuals seeking the opioid-like compound MPPP inadvertently consumed MPTP, a neurotoxin. 

As a result of this mistake, these young people experienced severe, Parkinson’s-like symptoms. MPTP, sometimes unintentionally produced in the process of creating illegal drugs, has devastating consequences. 

It attacks the brain’s dopaminergic neurons, specifically in the substantia nigra—a critical area related to movement.

Dopamine on Mood, Movement, and Motivation

Huberman recounted his struggle with a severe stomach bug, Giardia, which led to an emergency room visit and a treatment that included an antipsychotic drug called Thorazine, used to block dopamine receptors. 

This treatment plunged him into an unprecedented state of depression, demonstrating the acute sensitivity our bodies have to dopamine depletion. 

It was only when he was given L-DOPA, a precursor of dopamine, that his sense of well-being was restored, illustrating how rapidly and profoundly dopamine can impact our emotions.

Dopaminergic neurons are crucial for our quality of life due to their roles in facilitating not just mood, but also movement and motivation. 

When these neurons are damaged, as seen in conditions like Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia, individuals suffer greatly. 

Huberman’s experience underscores the value of understanding and maintaining the health of these essential neural pathways.

In our daily lives, even subtle increases or decreases in dopamine can significantly alter our perception of life, shaping what we feel we’re capable of and our overall mood. 

Huberman emphasizes the importance of balancing our dopamine levels – finding ways to maintain a healthy baseline while also being able to experience peaks that enrich our lives. 

Such peaks in dopamine can result from engaging in various activities and, sometimes, from what we ingest.

Chocolate, Sex (Pursuit & Behavior), Nicotine, Cocaine, Amphetamine, Exercise

Nicotine, cocaine, and amphetamines can dramatically increase dopamine—cocaine by two and a half times baseline and amphetamines by a staggering ten times. 

However, these surges are fleeting, particularly in the case of nicotine, leading to frequent use to maintain its effects.

Exercise, by comparison, can double the baseline levels of dopamine, but this boost is closely tied to an individual’s enjoyment of the activity. 

For someone who takes pleasure in running, a significant increase in dopamine can be expected, whereas those who don’t enjoy exercise may experience little to no rise in dopamine levels. 

This is a prime example of the subjective nature of dopamine release; our personal feelings towards an activity can influence the neurochemical reward we receive from it.

Interestingly, our perspective on activities can be molded by our thoughts and expressions about them. 

Huberman suggests that the act of focusing on aspects we appreciate, such as through journaling or gratitude practices, can incrementally increase the dopamine released by these activities. 

However, seeking rewards post hoc can be counterproductive. Instead of increasing appreciation for the action, such rewards may actually reduce the natural dopamine response we would have otherwise experienced.

Huberman also touches on how universal certain substances like chocolate, sex, and drugs are in increasing dopamine in nearly everyone, contrasting with the variance seen in how much dopamine is released by activities like exercising and studying, which is influenced by personal disposition.

When it comes to caffeine, the effects are more nuanced. 

While caffeine does provide a modest increase in dopamine, it also enhances the body’s sensitivity to dopamine by upregulating dopamine receptors over time. This property of caffeine can contribute to heightened experiences of dopamine’s effects, even synergizing with other substances like nicotine.

Pursuit, Excitement & Your “Dopamine Setpoint”

According to neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, every win in life—be it securing food in primal times or crossing the finish line of a marathon in the modern era—triggers a spike in dopamine release, filling us with a sense of achievement. 

However, this high isn’t permanent; our dopamine levels inevitably plummet, not just to the original baseline but, surprisingly, below it. 

This dip below the baseline can manifest as a lack of motivation or mood decline, a phenomenon often observed after significant life events or achievements.

Huberman illuminates the counterintuitive relationship between these dopamine highs and the subsequent lows, explaining that the intensity of the initial peak influences the depth of the following drop. 

The greater the euphoria upon success, the steeper the fall in dopamine levels, which can lead to a temporary state of discontent or demotivation. 

This is a protective, evolutionary mechanism to ensure that we don’t linger too long in satisfaction and stagnate, but instead feel compelled to seek new goals and rewards.

The frequency and repetition of rewarding experiences also affect our dopamine baseline. 

Engaging in favored activities can initially provide joy, yet if repeated excessively, they may lose their allure, lessening the excitement associated with them. This points to not only the possibility of addiction, where continuous indulgence in a behavior is required to achieve the same dopamine high but also to the subtler concept of a ‘dopamine set point’ that we all possess—our individual baseline of contentment and motivation.

Huberman introduces insights from Dr. Anna Lemke, whose work on the pleasure-pain balance speaks to the subtle aftermath of indulging in something enjoyable, such as the desire for more chocolate after savoring a piece. 

She emphasizes how the consequent ‘pain’—the craving for more—is a direct response to the transient reduction in our dopamine levels post-pleasure.

Pleasure-Pain Balance and Its Impact on Addiction

When someone engages in an activity or substance that spikes their dopamine levels greatly, they may feel inclined to pursue that peak again to recover the high. 

However, each subsequent pursuit further depletes their dopamine reserves, leading to an even lower baseline and eroding their overall well-being.

The cycle of addiction is characterized by this chase for dopamine-driven pleasure, which ultimately narrows the range of activities that bring joy to an individual. 

Over time, the focus becomes increasingly narrow until, potentially, only the addictive behavior can cause dopamine release. 

Tragically, this can result in a severe withdrawal from other life interests, such as education, relationships, and personal health. 

In cases of video game addiction, a player may initially experience immense pleasure from the game, only to find that the pleasure diminishes with time, leading possibly to a descent into depression.

This is not exclusive to severe cases of addiction. 

Huberman also touches on the ‘work hard, play hard’ lifestyle where individuals might not be classified as addicts but still follow a pattern of dopamine spikes and crashes. 

For example, someone may exercise and work diligently during the week, but engage in alcohol consumption on weekends, and dopamine-heavy eating during the week. 

These repeated cycles, even if they seem balanced by periods of work or exercise, may still perpetuate a harmful pattern that could affect overall emotional and mental health.

Social Connections and Dopamine Release

Oxytocin, commonly referred to as the “love hormone,” is a crucial player in this relationship. It’s well-documented for its role in fostering social bonds, such as romantic relationships, parent-child attachment, and friendships—even those maintained over a distance. 

Andrew Huberman, a renowned neuroscientist, highlights a paper that draws a direct link between oxytocin and dopamine—a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward.

This discovery aligns perfectly with our understanding of evolutionary biology. It posits that for any social species, including humans, it’s essential not only to form social connections but also to actively seek them out. 

The reason for this is rooted in the brain’s reward system; dopamine release encourages us to continue engaging in behaviors that are beneficial for our survival, such as building a social network.

What’s particularly intriguing about oxytocin is that it doesn’t require physical contact to work its magic. 

So, whether it’s a warm hug or a friendly chat over the phone, oxytocin can still prompt the release of dopamine, reinforcing the desire for social interaction.

Huberman’s insights emphasize the importance of nourishing quality social relationships for our mental well-being. 

Engaging regularly in meaningful social interactions activates these dopamine circuits, leading to feelings of happiness and satisfaction. This fundamental understanding is vital not just for our emotional health, but it also serves as a natural reward mechanism that underpins much of human behavior.

So, the primary message is clear: cherish and pursue healthy social connections. They are not just emotional necessities but also biochemical catalysts that trigger the rewarding sensations we associate with close relationships.

Impact of Pornography on Romantic and Sexual Interactions

Pornography, due to its nature, has the power to evoke significant dopamine release, a neurotransmitter linked to pleasure and reward in the brain. 

Engaging with any activity that prompts such a high level of dopamine can create a threshold that makes it increasingly challenging to achieve the same intensity of pleasure through other activities, particularly those that typically involve lower or more gradual dopamine release. 

This could potentially condition the expectation for instant gratification, thereby reshaping how individuals perceive and engage in their real-world romantic and sexual relationships.

Controlling Dopamine Peaks & Baselines

Huberman discusses how different stimuli can result in varying increases in dopamine release. 

For example, consuming chocolate can bump up your baseline dopamine by 1.5 times. It’s noteworthy that this increase is short-lived, suggesting that the pleasure derived from eating chocolate is a fleeting sensation. 

In contrast, engaging in sexual activities, ranging from the pursuit to the act itself, causes a doubling of dopamine levels. This highlights sex as a potent natural stimulant for well-being and pleasure, with a considerable impact on our motivational circuits.

When it comes to nicotine, particularly from smoking cigarettes, the dopamine surge is even more pronounced, at a 2.5-fold increase above baseline. 

Huberman’s discussion indicates that while some activities like eating chocolate and having sex can be part of a healthy lifestyle when approached appropriately, the use of nicotine is a reminder that not all dopamine-inducing activities are beneficial for our health.

Balancing Dopamine to Avoid Burnout

The key to avoiding the depletion of dopamine levels, Huberman states, is to understand how our actions influence the peaks and valleys in our dopamine baseline. 

By making informed choices both in the short and long term, we can sustain—or even increase—our baseline level of dopamine while still enjoying life’s pleasures and maintaining our motivation and desire for progression.

Huberman provides a personal anecdote about someone who successfully lifted their dopamine baseline through a “dopamine fast,” taking a break from engaging activities like video games and social media, which illustrate how our brains can reset and recover from the over-stimulation of dopamine-seeking behaviors. 

This recovery can lead to improved concentration, mood, and overall well-being, without the need for interventions like ADHD medication, which may have been misdiagnosed due to dopamine depletion.

Tuning Your Dopamine for Ongoing Motivation

Andrew Huberman highlights that dopamine levels can shape our perception of effort and duration during tasks such as schoolwork or exercise. 

When we anticipate a reward at the end of an activity, we may start to find less pleasure during the activity itself and instead view it as more painful and less efficient.

Huberman suggests a significant shift away from this mindset by learning to derive pleasure directly from the effort and strain of an activity, which aligns with Carol Dweck’s concept of growth mindset. 

Growth mindset is the belief that we can improve and that the pursuit of improvement is rewarding in itself. 

By consistently focusing on the effort rather than the reward, we can evoke dopamine release during the activity, leading to enhanced focus, energy, and even pleasure from the work we’re doing.

Interestingly, the method to achieve this lies in changing our internal reward systems. 

Huberman explains that during moments of intense effort, we can teach ourselves to find reward in the challenge by recognizing that any pain or discomfort we feel can ultimately increase our baseline dopamine levels. 

By repeating this process, we begin to instinctively find joy in effortful pursuits.

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